Two Sides of the Same Coin: How Madness Is Portrayed in Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’
The trope of madness and the figure of the madman are notions that have for centuries fascinated, horrified, and perplexed Western culture. Considerations of madness have influenced myriad literary narratives, starting with the madness of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and moving through the ages, past Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Poe’s Usher, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and Camus’ Meursault. Yet the concept of madness has changed throughout the century influenced by the growth of the scientific and medical study of insanity. Increasingly from the nineteenth century, madness has been seen more as a social and medical problem, compared to the previous centuries when madness was regarded as the absence of reason, and therefore, evil. The trope of madness has been drawn on again by the writers of the Beat Generation; indeed, Beat writing thrives with examples of the mad genius, a character who moves across time and space to understand true meaning of the universe, showing an evident fascination with madness and its consequences. Madness is, in fact, one of the main themes of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Ginsberg tackles the theme of madness from two different points of view: on the one hand, he explores madness as a mental condition; on the other hand, he explores madness as a state of mind that can be induced by narcotic substances.
One of the most significant elements for the way Allen Ginsberg’s personality, and eventually Howl, took shape was his mother’s mental health. “Howl is about family, friends, lovers, nations that go mad, or die, or try to. Mother checked out, and so will everybody else” (Taylor 20). Ginsberg encountered this distinct form of madness from very early and very nearby on in his life, which permanently upset him. When Ginsberg was a child, his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, suffered from “mental paranoia” and had to spend her life in and out of asylum until she passed away (Ridwansyah 261). As a consequence, Ginsberg spent most of his life trying to show that madness, the mental condition that has deprived him of his mother, is a mental state caused by the unachievable standard imposed by the modern society. Indeed, in “Howl” Ginsberg claims that modern society has driven the most promising men of his generation mad, so that he opens his poem by admitting that he “saw the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness” (1). He then affirms that the society in which they live has made these “best minds” (1) both “crazy” (18) and “suicidal” (174). They are “hallucinating” (16) and suffering from “nightmares” (29) and “catatonia” (260). Ginsberg asserts that modern society wants to repress those who are different and special by making them feel as the strange one. They try to kill themselves because they are not able to cope with a reality that cannot accept their inability to conform. Madness, in his point of view, should not be regarded as an illness that ruin people’s mind, but as an added value that let people see behind the surface of reality. Yet the best minds themselves recognize that they are psychotic and that they are different from the rest of the society, because they “demanded sanity trials” (247) and they “presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse […] demanding instant lobotomy” (251-254).
Even though Howl can be easily read as a critique of the 1950s society, James Breslin suggests that the poem (particularly the first part) is a critique that Ginsberg moves towards his father. Indeed, “his father […] disapproved of anything out of the ordinary, ranging from hallucinations to homosexuality, and Howl is often seen as one big reaction against him” (Breslin 87). In the poem, Ginsberg is proving his mother right by showing her hallucinations as well as supporting her religious and communist ideas. Indeed, Ginsberg supports his mother’s political idea by recognizing that some of the “best minds” were communists and by praising their actions against the capitalistic system: who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed. (101-105) Breslin even goes as far as to say that Ginsberg took up “his father’s medium of communication (poetry) and, declaring it hollow and dead, transformed it by infusing it with the hallucinatory visions and human vulnerability of his mother” (95). However, in “Howl” Ginsberg could be easily referring both to his father and to the 1950s American society, critiquing a stereotyped model of life that he experimented in first person in his family. Ginsberg also experienced what it does mean to be considered mad in first person. In 1949, he spent eight months in an asylum.
Even though Ginsberg’s father sometimes questioned his mental health in his letters, Ginsberg did not suffer his mother’s destiny, but he faked insanity to escape prosecution. He was caught helping his friend Herbert Huncke hiding stolen goods in his college dorm room and chose asylum against a more severe punishment. He got away with it and was sent to a mental institution instead; he met Carl Solomon there, who provided him with stories that would later feature in Howl and to whom the poem was dedicated (McNally 119). In Solomon’s madness Ginsberg recognizes “shade of [his] mother[‘s]” madness (377) and the same potential he saw on his mother (and in himself). Indeed, Ginsberg writes that he and Solomon “are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter” (383-384). Madness is seen again not just as a mental condition but as a source of inspiration. The impact of psychosis on Ginsberg’s work and life did not stop with witnessing the mental conditions of his family and friends. Another kind of madness was a consequence of drug abuse, which he witnessed in his environment and participated in too. Ginsberg saw drugs as an escape from the ordinary life and as a source of inspirations. In his poem “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg praises the madness caused by the drugs by saying, Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel! The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy! The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy! (6-12) This ecstasy was a state of mind necessary for the poet to become this holy entity able of creating an even more holy literary product.
According to Bruce Hunsberger however, among Ginsberg’s private experiences with madness, the hallucination he had in the year 1948 was crucial. He claimed that, while he was reading William Blake’s poetry, he heard the voice of Blake reciting a couple of his poems. In an interview then transcribed in the book On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, he revealed that he “experienced “The Sick Rose” with the voice of Blake reading it, as something that applied to the whole universe, like hearing the doom of the whole universe, and at the same time the inevitable beauty of doom” (Ginsberg and Hyde 124). Together with his friends, he looked for similar experience by trying different kind of drugs, alcohol and other means of intoxication. As a consequence, drugs become a medium to free their consciousness and to get inspiration in the creative process. It is Ginsberg himself that admits that “drugs were obviously a technique for experimenting with consciousness, to get different areas and different levels and different similarities and different reverberations of the same vision” (Ginsberg and Hyde 126). Madness becomes for Ginsberg a vehicle to explore different realities all similar to the one he was living in; realities that can help him have a different understanding of the world.
At the same time, drugs are a medium to explore his inner self and to discover what the society made him repress while feeling a connection whit his closer friends who decided to share this experience with him. The use of drugs together with the time he spent into the asylum helped Ginsberg in projecting himself into Rockland with his friend Solomon. If it is true, as he admitted, that he used drugs to expand his vision of reality during his creative process, it could have been possible Ginsberg experienced firsthand the feelings he describes in the third part of “Howl.” As a matter of fact, the descriptions are so detailed that the reader is transported into the poem without even realizing it. When Ginsberg writes, I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls col- -lapse O skinny legions run outside O starry- spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free (425-433) the reader is carried in another world made of confused moving images. Thanks to the lack of punctuation, the reader can enter Ginsberg mind and explore with him the different realities that he was able to see.
Howl, therefore, represents the meeting between two different types of madness. On the one hand, there is the world of the mentally ill, a world that Ginsberg experienced very closely thanks to his mother and his friends, but which he never joined. The world that was regarded by the society as sick and wrong, but that was for Ginsberg fascinating and intriguing: the world that the society wanted to get rid of. On the other side, there is the world that Ginsberg has decided to create to escape the reality that oppressed him, to be able to feel closer to those he loved and to discover new aspects of himself. The world that he could reach whenever he wanted thanks to the use of drugs. Between the two worlds, there is his creative process that allowed Ginsberg to turn his experiences into words, doing what many writers tried to do before and him: explore the human nature in all its facets.
Breslin, James. “Allen Ginsberg: The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish.’” The Iowa Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 1977, pp. 82–108. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20158746. Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 2010. Ginsberg, Allen, and Lewis Hyde. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. University of Michigan Press, 1984. McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, And America. Da Capo Press, 2003. Google Book Search. Web. 14 July 2015. Ridwansyah, Randy. “Orality as the Representation of Madness in the Poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg.” Humaniora, journal.ugm.ac.id/jurnal-humaniora/article/view/3537. Taylor, Steven. “The Poem and I Are Fifty.” Howl for Now: A Celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Protest Poem. Route, 2005.
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